Article by Matthew Cole
Officially known as the Naval Special Warfare Development Group, SEAL Team 6 is today the most celebrated of the U.S. military’s special mission units. But hidden behind the heroic narratives is a darker, more troubling story of “revenge ops,” unjustified killings, mutilations, and other atrocities — a pattern of criminal violence that emerged soon after the Afghan war began and was tolerated and covered up by the command’s leadership.
THE WEDDING PARTY MASSACRE
ON THE AFTERNOON of March 6, 2002, Lt. Cmdr. Vic Hyder and more than two dozen operators from SEAL Team 6 boarded two Chinook helicopters en route to eastern Afghanistan hoping that within hours, they would kill or capture Osama bin Laden.
Earlier that evening, general officers from the Joint Special Operations Command had scrambled the SEALs after watching a Predator drone video feed of a man they suspected was bin Laden set off in a convoy of three or four vehicles in the Shah-i-Kot Valley, where al Qaeda forces had fortified themselves. Although the video had revealed no weapons, and the generals had only tenuous intelligence that the convoy was al Qaeda — just suspicions based on the color of the man’s flowing white garb and the deference others showed him — they were nervous that bin Laden might get away again, as he had a few months earlier after the bombing of the Tora Bora mountains in December 2001. This was a crucial moment: Kill bin Laden now and the war could be over after only six months. The vehicles were headed east toward the Pakistani border, as if they were trying to escape. The mission was code-named Objective Bull.
Afghanistan’s Paktia province is about the size of New Hampshire, with 10,000-foot ridgelines and arid valleys with dried riverbeds below, nestled along the border with Pakistan’s tribal areas. The prominent mountain range often served as the last geographic refuge for retreating forces entering Pakistan. As the special operations helicopters approached the convoy from the north and west, Air Force jets dropped two bombs, halting the vehicles and killing several people instantly.
That was not how the SEALs wanted the mission to develop. Inside the helicopters, some of the operators had pushed to hold off any air attack, arguing that they had plenty of time to intercept the convoy before it reached the Pakistani border. “The reason SEAL Team 6 exists is to avoid bombs and collateral damage,” said a retired SEAL Team 6 member who was on the mission. “We said, ‘Let us set down and take a look at the convoy to determine if it’s al Qaeda.’ Instead, they dropped several bombs.”
The bombing stopped the convoy along a dry wadi, or ravine, with two of the trucks approximately a kilometer apart. Survivors began to flee the wreckage, and over the radio, Hyder and his team heard the order that the convoy was now in a “free fire zone,” allowing the Chinooks’ gunners to fire at anyone deemed a threat, regardless of whether they were armed. The SEALs had no authority over the helicopter gunners.
The two Chinooks landed separately, one near each end of the convoy. Both teams exited the helicopters to find a grim scene. The SEALs with Hyder came out and separated into two groups. One, led by an enlisted operator, took in the damage to one of the vehicles. Men, women, and a small girl, motionless and in the fetal position, appeared dead. Inside the vehicle were one or two rifles, as is customary in Afghanistan, but none of the men wore military clothing or had any extra ammunition. “These were family weapons,” said the retired SEAL.
The SEALs from the other helicopter immediately headed up a steep hill after landing to locate an armed man who had been shot from the helicopter. When they reached the hilltop, the operators looked down in disbelief at women and children, along with the man — all were dead or mortally wounded from the spray of gunfire from the Chinook’s gunners, who had unloaded after the free fire zone had been declared. They realized the man had been trying to protect the women and children.
Other SEALs on the ground proceeded as though the survivors were combatants. Hyder and an enlisted operator named Monty Heath had gone in a different direction and saw a survivor flee the bombed vehicle toward a nearby berm. Heath fired once, hitting the man, sending him tumbling down the back side of the small rise.
At that point, Hyder began assessing the damage and surveying the dead. “I was going around to the different KIAs with my camera to take photos,” Hyder told me in an interview, using the military term for enemies killed in action. “It was a mess.”
Hyder said that he and a few other SEALs began to bury the casualties near a ravine by piling rocks over them. As he did so, he approached the man Heath had shot. “He was partially alive, faced down, his back to me, and he rolled over. I shot him, finished him. He was dying, but he rolled over and I didn’t know whether he was armed or not. That was the end of that.” Hyder said that his single shot had blasted open the man’s head.
According to Hyder, the encounter ended there. But the retired SEAL who was on the mission tells a different story. According to this source, after shooting the man, who turned out to be unarmed, Hyder proceeded to mutilate his body by stomping in his already damaged skull. When Heath, who witnessed Hyder’s actions, reported them to his team leader in the presence of other members of the team, “several of the guys turned and walked away,” said the retired SEAL. “They were disgusted.” He quoted Heath as saying, “I’m morally flexible but I can’t handle that.” Heath refused to comment for this article.
The retired SEAL, who spent the better part of two decades at the command, said he never asked Hyder why he mutilated the corpse. It wasn’t necessary. He assumed it was a twisted act of misplaced revenge over the previous days’ events — specifically, the gruesome death of Hyder’s teammate Neil Roberts.
Top: Photo of helicopter on Takur Ghar. Bottom left: Screengrab from drone feed during the battle of Roberts Ridge. Bottom right: Candid photo of U.S. Navy SEAL Neil Roberts. Photos: U.S. Department of Defense; Screengrab from video by U.S. Department of Defense; U.S. Navy by the Roberts family
LESS THAN 48 HOURS before Objective Bull commenced, a small reconnaissance group from SEAL Team 6’s Red Team had tried to establish an observation post on the 10,000-foot peak of Takur Ghar, overlooking the Shah-i-Kot valley, where forces from the Army’s 10th Mountain Division intended to strike the last redoubt of al Qaeda forces massed in Afghanistan. Neil “Fifi” Roberts, a member of the SEAL recon team, fell 10 feet from the back of a Chinook and was stranded as the helicopter took fire from foreign al Qaeda fighters who were already on the snow-covered mountaintop. Two hours passed before the SEALs in the damaged helicopter were able to return. They didn’t know it, but Roberts was already dead, shot at close range in the head shortly after his helicopter departed the mountaintop. A Predator drone video feed filmed an enemy fighter standing over Roberts’s body for two minutes, trying to behead the dead American with a knife.
Eventually, two other elements of a quick reaction force — one of which included Hyder — landed at the top of Takur Ghar. In the ensuing 17-hour battle with the al Qaeda fighters, six more Americans were killed, and several were wounded. After the bodies were recovered, Hyder and the other members of Red Team were forced to reckon with the mutilation and near beheading of their fellow SEAL. Hyder was new to SEAL Team 6, but as the ranking officer on the ground during that operation, he was technically in charge. He took Roberts’s death hard.
Neil Roberts was the first member of SEAL Team 6 to die in the Afghan war, and among the first elite operators who died after 9/11. Beyond the dehumanizing manner in which the al Qaeda fighters had treated his corpse, Roberts’s death pierced the SEALs’ self-perception of invincibility.
The battle of Roberts Ridge, as it came to be known, has been frequently described in books and press accounts. But what happened during Objective Bull, the assault on the convoy in the Shah-i-Kot Valley, has never been previously reported.
Roberts’s death, and the subsequent operations in eastern Afghanistan during the winter 2002 deployment, left an indelible impression on SEAL Team 6, especially on Red Team. According to multiple SEAL Team 6 sources, the events of that day set off a cascade of extraordinary violence. As the legend of SEAL Team 6 grew, a rogue culture arose that operated outside of the Navy’s established mechanisms for command and investigation. Parts of SEAL Team 6 began acting with an air of impunity that disturbed observers within the command. Senior members of SEAL Team 6 felt the pattern of brutality was not only illegal but rose to the level of war crimes.
“To understand the violence, you have to begin at Roberts Ridge,” said one former member of SEAL Team 6 who deployed several times to Afghanistan. “When you see your friend killed, recover his body, and find that the enemy mutilated him? It’s a schoolyard mentality. ‘You guys want to play with those rules?’ ‘OK.’” Although this former SEAL acknowledged that war crimes are wrong, he understood how they happen. “You ask me to go living with the pigs, but I can’t go live with pigs and then not get dirty.”
NO SINGLE MILITARY unit has come to represent American military success or heroism more than SEAL Team 6, officially designated as the Naval Special Warfare Development Group and known in military vernacular as DevGru, Team 6, the Command, and Task Force Blue. Its operators are part of an elite, clandestine cadre. The men who make it through the grueling training represent roughly the top 10 percent of all SEALs. They are taught to live and if necessary die for one another. The extreme risks they take forge extreme bonds.
Made up of no more than 200 SEAL operators when the Afghan war began, SEAL Team 6 was the lesser known of the U.S. military’s elite “special mission” units. Created in 1980 and based at the Dam Neck Annex of Naval Air Station Oceana near Virginia Beach, the command prided itself on its culture of nonconformity with the larger military. The unit’s name itself is part of an attempt to obscure U.S. capabilities. When it was commissioned, the Navy had only two SEAL (Sea, Air, and Land) assault teams, but founding officer Cmdr. Richard Marcinko hoped that the number six would lead the Soviet military to inflate its assessment of the Navy’s SEALs.
When SEAL Team 6 first deployed to Afghanistan in January 2002, the command had three assault teams, Red, Blue, and Gold, each with a mascot. Red Team, known as the Redmen, employed a Native American warrior as a mascot; Blue Team, known as the Pirates, wore the Jolly Roger; and Gold Team, known as the Crusaders or Knights, wore a lion or a crusader’s cross.
The prevailing narrative about SEAL Team 6 in news coverage, bestselling books, and Hollywood movies is unambiguously heroic; it centers on the killing of Osama bin Laden and high-profile rescue missions. With few exceptions, a darker, more troubling story has been suppressed and ignored — a story replete with tactical brilliance on battlefields around the world coupled with a pattern of silence and deceit when “downrange” actions lead to episodes of criminal brutality. The unit’s elite stature has insulated its members from the scrutiny and military justice that lesser units would have faced for the same actions.
This account of the crimes of SEAL Team 6 results from a two-year investigation drawing on interviews with 18 current and former members of the unit, including four former senior leaders of the command. Other military and intelligence officials who have served with or investigated the unit were also interviewed. Most would speak about the unit only on background or without attribution, because nearly every facet of SEAL Team 6 is classified. Some sources asked for anonymity citing the probability of professional retaliation for speaking out against their peers and teammates. According to these sources, whether judged by its own private code or the international laws of war, the command has proven to be incapable and unwilling to hold itself accountable for war crimes.
Most SEALs did not commit atrocities, the sources said, but the problem was persistent and recurrent, like a stubborn virus. Senior leaders at the command knew about the misconduct and did little to eradicate it. The official SEAL creed reads, in part: “Uncompromising integrity is my standard. My character and honor are steadfast. My word is my bond.” But after 9/11, another code emerged that made lying — especially to protect a teammate or the command from accountability — the more honorable course of action.
“You can’t win an investigation on us,” one former SEAL Team 6 leader told me. “You don’t whistleblow on the teams … and when you win on the battlefield, you don’t lose investigations.”
BY THE TIME the two dozen Red Team operators departed for Objective Bull, tension had built up between Hyder, a commissioned officer, and the enlisted operators technically under his command. The situation was not particularly unusual. Historically, SEAL Team 6 is known as a unit where officers “rent their lockers,” because they typically serve about three years before rotating out, whereas the enlisted operators remain for much of their careers, often for a decade or more. Simply put, the unit is an enlisted mafia, where tactics are driven by the expertise developed by the unit’s enlisted assaulters, whose abilities and experience at making rapid threat decisions make up the command’s core resource. Officers like Hyder, who did not pass through the brutal SEAL Team 6 internal training program, known as Green Team, are often viewed with suspicion and occasionally contempt by the enlisted SEAL operators.
Even before the attack on the convoy and the alleged mutilation of the dead Afghan, Hyder had committed at least one killing with questionable justification. Several weeks earlier, in January 2002, Hyder killed an unarmed Afghan man north of Kandahar during the unit’s first ground assault of the war. In that operation, Hyder led a team of Red operators on a nighttime mission to capture suspected al Qaeda militants in a compound. After securing several detainees and cordoning the area, Hyder and his men waited for their helicopters to arrive and extract them. During the mission, the SEALs reported receiving small arms fire from exterior positions, though no one was hit. After 90 minutes, as the helicopters were nearing the rendezvous point, one of the SEALs alerted Hyder that an old man who had been lying in a ditch nearby was walking toward the SEALs’ position.
In an interview, Hyder said the man had approached his position with his arms tucked into his armpits and did not heed warnings from other SEALs to stop. Hyder acknowledged that the man likely did not understand English and probably couldn’t see very well. Unlike the SEALs, the man was not wearing night-vision goggles. “He continued to move towards us,” Hyder said. “I assessed he was nearing a distance where he was within an area where he could do damage with a grenade.” Hyder said that a week earlier, a militant had detonated a concealed grenade after approaching some American CIA officers, seriously injuring them. “He kept moving toward us, so at 15 meters I put one round in him and he dropped. Unfortunately, it turned out he had an audiocassette in his hand. By the rules of engagement he became a legitimate target and it was supported. It’s a question, why was he a threat? After all that activity, he’d been hiding in a ditch for 90 minutes, he gets up, he’s spoken to, yelled at in the dark … it’s disturbing. I’m disappointed he didn’t take a knee.”
Hyder, who was the ground force commander for the Kandahar operation, was cleared in an after-action review of the shooting. The rules of engagement allowed the ground force commander to shoot anyone he viewed as a threat, regardless of whether they were armed at the time of the shooting. But in the eyes of the enlisted SEALs of Red Team, Hyder had killed a man who didn’t have to die. Two of the operators with Hyder reported afterward that the man was not a threat. One of those operators was Neil Roberts.
“The SEALs believe that they can handle the discipline themselves, that’s equal to or greater than what the criminal justice system would give to the person.”
The morning after Objective Bull, Red Team gathered at Bagram Air Base. Most of the operators held a meeting to discuss what had happened on the mission. No officers were present, and the enlisted SEALs used the meeting to address Hyder’s alleged mutilation of the dead Afghan the previous day. The discussion covered battlefield ethics. Inside a heated tent, as many as 40 SEAL Team 6 operators asked themselves how they wanted to treat their fallen enemies. Should they seek revenge for Roberts? Was it acceptable, as Hyder had done with the wounded man whom he executed, to desecrate the dead?
“We talked about it … and 35 guys nodded their heads saying this is not who we are. We shoot ’em. No issues with that. And then we move on,” said a former SEAL who was present at the meeting. “There’s honor involved and Vic Hyder obviously traipsed all over that,” he said. “Mutilation isn’t part of the game.”
Nonetheless, Red Team did not report Hyder’s alleged battlefield mutilation, a war crime. In what would become part of a pattern of secrecy and silence, the SEAL operators dealt with the issue on their own and kept the incident from their chain of command.
“The SEALs believe that they can handle the discipline themselves, that’s equal to or greater than what the criminal justice system would give to the person,” said Susan Raser, a retired Naval Criminal Investigative Service agent who led the agency’s criminal division but did not investigate this mission. “They have an internal process that they think is sufficient and they are not inclined to cooperate unless they absolutely have to.” Raser, who conducted investigations into both regular SEAL units and SEAL Team 6, said that in her experience, SEALs simply didn’t report wrongdoing by their teammates.
Senior leaders at the command knew the grisly circumstances of Roberts’s death had unsettled Red Team. “Fifi was mutilated,” said a retired noncommissioned SEAL leader who was involved in internal discussions about how to prevent SEAL Team 6 from seeking revenge. “And then we had to address a very important question, how do you get the guys’ heads straight to mitigate any retaliation for Fifi? Otherwise we knew it’s going to get out of control. A third of the guys literally think they’re Apache warriors, then you had the Muslim way of removing a head. I understand the desire, I don’t condone it, but there was definite retaliation.”
Hyder told me that he did not desecrate the body. “I deny it,” he said, adding that he didn’t understand why Heath would have claimed to have witnessed it. “Even if it was true, I don’t know why he would say that.” Hyder said he was not aware of the Bagram meeting held by the enlisted operators about him or the accusations. “Why would I do that?” he asked. “Somebody else is making this up. Memories get distorted over 14 years. They’re telling you how they remember it. There was a lot of chaos. I’m telling you the absolute truth.”
After the deployment, SEAL Team 6’s leadership examined Hyder’s actions during Objective Bull. For some of them, what was most troubling was not that Hyder might have taken gratuitous revenge for Roberts’s death on an unrelated civilian, but that on more than one occasion, as ground force commander, he had fired his own weapon to neutralize perceived threats. “If you have multiple incidents where the ground force commander pulls the trigger on a deployment, you have a total breakdown of operational tactics,” said one retired SEAL leader. “It’s not their responsibility — that is why we have DevGru operators.”
Beyond the story of the alleged mutilation, the sight of the dead civilians killed during the opening airstrikes of Objective Bull, especially the women and children, left members of Red Team with deep psychological scars. “It ruined some of these guys,” said the former SEAL operator on the mission.
Six days after Objective Bull, the Pentagon announced at a press conference that an airstrike had killed 14 people, who a spokesperson said were “somehow affiliated” with al Qaeda. Sources at SEAL Team 6 who were present during the operation estimated the number of dead was between 17 and 20. Inside the command, the incident became known as the Wedding Party bombing after it was learned that the convoy was driving to a wedding.
Hyder finished his tour at SEAL Team 6 shortly after returning from the Afghanistan deployment and was later promoted to the rank of commander, the Navy equivalent of a lieutenant colonel. He was awarded the Silver Star for his efforts at Takur Ghar to save Roberts and the rest of the Red Team recon element. A few years later, after Hyder’s name was mentioned for another rotation in Red Team, some of Hyder’s former operators informed SEAL Team 6 leadership that he was not welcome back in the unit.
Neil Roberts’s bent rifle was placed on the wall of Red Team’s room at the SEALs’ base near Virginia Beach, a visible reminder of their teammate, their first deployment, and the troubles that would follow.
BLOODY THE HATCHET
ONE CLEAR SIGN that all was not right with the command was the way sadism crept into the SEALs’ practices, with no apparent consequences. A few months after Objective Bull, for example, one of Hyder’s operators began taunting dying insurgents on videos he shot as part of his post-operation responsibilities. These “bleed out” videos were replayed on multiple occasions at Bagram Air Base. The operator who made them, a former SEAL leader said, would gather other members of Red Squadron to watch the last few seconds of an enemy fighter’s life. “It was war porn,” said the former SEAL, who viewed one of the videos. “No one would do anything about them.” The operator who made the bleed-out videos was forced out of SEAL Team 6 the following year after a drunken episode at Bagram in which he pistol-whipped another SEAL.
The SEALs’ successes throughout 2002 resulted in the Joint Special Operations Command choosing the unit to lead the hunt for al Qaeda, as well as the invasion of Baghdad in March 2003. The rise of JSOC as the sharp tip of America’s military effort led to a similar increase in size and responsibility for SEAL Team 6 in the early years of America’s two post-9/11 wars. By 2006, the command rapidly expanded, growing from 200 to 300 operators. What were originally known as assault teams now formally became squadrons, and by 2008, the expansion led to the creation of Silver, a fourth assault squadron. One result of the growth was that back in Virginia, the captain in command of the entire 300-SEAL force had far less oversight over tactical battlefield decisions. It was at this point that some critics in the military complained that SEAL Team 6 — with their full beards and arms, legs, and torsos covered in tattoos — looked like members of a biker gang. Questions about battlefield atrocities persisted, though some excused these actions in the name of psychological warfare against the enemy.
Against this backdrop, in 2006, Hugh Wyman Howard III, a descendant of an admiral and himself a Naval Academy graduate, took command of Red Squadron and its roughly 50 operators. Howard, who has since risen through the ranks and is currently a rear admiral, was twice rejected by his superiors for advanced SEAL Team 6 training. But in 1998, after intervention by a senior officer at Dam Neck, Howard was given a slot on Green Team. Because of Howard’s pedigree, SEAL Team 6 leaders running the training program felt pressure to pass him. After being shepherded through the nine-month training, he entered Red Squadron. Howard took the unit’s identity seriously, and after 9/11, despite the questionable circumstances that led to his ascent, his influence steadily grew.
In keeping with Red Squadron’s appropriation of Native American culture, Howard came up with the idea to bestow 14-inch hatchets on each SEAL who had a year of service in the squadron. The hatchets, paid for by private donations Howard solicited, were custom-made by Daniel Winkler, a highly regarded knife maker in North Carolina who designed several of the period tomahawks and knives used in the movie “The Last of the Mohicans.” Winkler sells similar hatchets for $600 each. The hatchets Howard obtained were stamped with a Native American warrior in a headdress and crossed tomahawks.
At first the hatchets appeared to be merely symbolic, because such heavy, awkward weapons had no place in the gear of a special operator. “There’s no military purpose for it,” a former Red Squadron operator told me. “But they are a great way of being part of a team. It was given as an honor, one more step to strive for, another sign that you’re doing a good job.”
For some of Howard’s men, however, the hatchets soon became more than symbolic as they were used at times to hack dead fighters in Iraq and Afghanistan. Others used them to break doorknobs on raids or kill militants in hand-to-hand combat.
During the first deployments in both Iraq and Afghanistan, it was common practice to take fingers, scalp, or skin from slain enemy combatants for identification purposes. One former SEAL Team 6 leader told me that he feared the practice would lead to members of the unit using the DNA samples as an excuse to mutilate and desecrate the dead. By 2007, when Howard and Red Squadron showed up with their hatchets in Iraq, internal reports of operators using the weapons to hack dead and dying militants were provided to both the commanding officer of SEAL Team 6 at that time, Capt. Scott Moore, and his deputy, Capt. Tim Szymanski.
Howard, who declined to answer questions from The Intercept, rallied his SEALs and others before missions and deployments by telling them to “bloody the hatchet.” One SEAL I spoke with said that Howard’s words were meant to be inspirational, like those of a coach, and were not an order to use the hatchets to commit war crimes. Others were much more critical. Howard was often heard asking his operators whether they’d gotten “blood on your hatchet” when they returned from a deployment. Howard’s distribution of the hatchets worried several senior SEAL Team 6 members and some CIA paramilitary officers who worked with his squadron.
Top left: Red Squadron tattoo. Top right: A bearded Red Squadron SEAL in Afghanistan. Bottom left: A Winkler hatchet similar to those issued to Red Squadron. Bottom right: Undated photo of Adm. Wyman Howard
BEGINNING IN 2005 and continuing through 2008, as U.S. Special Operations forces became more central to the American military strategy, the number and frequency of operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan increased dramatically.
One former SEAL Team 6 senior leader said that he and others at the command were concerned that the scale and intensity of the violence in Iraq was so great that U.S. operators might be tempted to engage in retaliatory mutilations, a tactic al Qaeda and the Iraqi insurgency sometimes employed. “Iraq was a different kind of war — nothing we’d ever seen,” said the now-retired Team 6 leader. “So many dead bodies, so many, everywhere, and so the potential opportunities for mutilations were great.”
The operational tempo was very high. “On my 2005 deployment in Afghanistan, we only went on a handful of ops,” said a retired SEAL who served under Howard. “By the time we moved over to Iraq, we were doing missions as much as five nights a week. Iraq was a target rich environment, and Wyman allowed us to be more aggressive.” According to several former SEAL Team 6 leaders, it was JSOC commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal who ordered the increased operational tempo and pushed SEAL Team 6, including Howard, to conduct more frequent raids to help wipe out the insurgency in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Howard, according to two of his former operators, was more willing than previous officers to greenlight operations based on “weak” intelligence, leading to more raids and strikes. As a result, Howard became popular among the enlisted SEALs under his command, several of whom defended and praised him.
Howard’s critics argue that the hatchets were emblems of the rogue, at times criminal, conduct on the battlefield the commander was encouraging. “Every one of us is issued and carries a suppressed weapon,” said one former senior SEAL, referring to the Heckler & Koch assault rifles, equipped with silencers, issued to the operators. “There just isn’t a need to carry a two-pound hatchet on the battlefield.” For those who favored them, this former SEAL said, the hatchets could be justified as being no more than knives. “It’s a great way to explain it away, but they have the hatchets to flaunt the law. Our job is to ensure that we conduct ourselves in a way befitting the American people and the American flag. The hatchet says, ‘We don’t care about the Geneva Conventions’ and that ‘we are above the law and can do whatever we want.’”
Critics inside the command were troubled by the combination of battlefield aggression and Howard’s lack of military discipline. A retired noncommissioned officer said Howard’s encouragement and provision of Winkler hatchets was simply adding fuel to the fire. The power of the Native American mascot, he said, was not to be dismissed. Since the 1980s, when Red Team was first created, there were many operators in the unit who had experienced a “metamorphosis of identity and persona” into Native American warriors. “Guys are going out every night killing everything. The hatchet was too intimate, too closely aligned with a tomahawk, to have been a good idea.” The former SEAL, who himself had served in Red during his career, said that by giving operators the weapon of their battlefield persona, Howard sent an unmistakable message to his men: Use it. “That’s when you take away a hatchet,” the retired SEAL said. “Not provide them.”
During one Iraq deployment, Howard returned from a raid to an operations center with blood on his hatchet and his uniform. Back at the base, he gave a speech to a group of analysts and nonoperational officers in which he told them that his bloody appearance was a demonstration of how a battlefield commander should lead. One operator, who confirmed Howard’s remarks, added his own: “That’s the business we’re in.”
HEAD ON A PLATTER
THE DEATH AND attempted decapitation of Neil Roberts on Takur Ghar affected no one so profoundly as Britt Slabinski, the operator who led the rescue team back up the mountain only to find that Roberts was already dead. One former teammate who served with Slabinski described his effort that day — outnumbered and with inferior fire support, taking incoming fire from the moment the helicopter landed — as “one of the most heroic things I’ve ever seen.” On the day when SEAL Team 6 lost its first operator in the post-9/11 era, Slabinski became a unit legend.
By all accounts, Slabinski, a second-generation SEAL who joined Team 6 in 1993, was an excellent sniper and reconnaissance operator. Thin and lanky, he was less physically imposing than many SEALs but was charismatic and dedicated. After Roberts’s death, Slabinksi wanted revenge. In audio of an unpublished interview with the late Malcolm MacPherson, author of a 2005 book about Roberts Ridge, Slabinski describes in great detail an operation that took place about a week after Objective Bull. In that mission, known as Objective Wolverine, Slabinski and his fellow SEALs were sent in Chinook helicopters to follow a convoy they believed was filled with al Qaeda fighters escaping to Pakistan. A drone flying above the convoy showed the occupants of three vehicles were heavily armed.
After the Chinook miniguns strafed the vehicles and stopped them, Slabinski and his team of snipers landed and moved to a rise several hundred yards away from one of the trucks and began firing sniper rounds at the militants. In that brief firefight, the SEALs killed nearly 20 foreign al Qaeda fighters, some of whom carried U.S. military equipment taken from Takur Ghar. Slabinski told MacPherson that Wolverine had been “really good payback.”
“Just a phenomenal, phenomenal day. We just slaughtered those dudes.” After describing one particular fighter who from a distance had resembled Osama bin Laden, Slabinksi continued: “To this day, we’ve never had anything as good as that. Oh my gosh. We needed that … there was not a better group of people to go and do that. The guys needed that to get back in the saddle because everyone was gun shy.”
“I mean, talk about the funny stuff we do. After I shot this dude in the head, there was a guy who had his feet, just his feet, sticking out of some little rut or something over here. I mean, he was dead, but people have got nerves. I shot him about 20 times in the legs, and every time you’d kick him, er, shoot him, he would kick up, you could see his body twitching and all that. It was like a game. Like, ‘hey look at this dude,’ and the guy would just twitch again. It was just good therapy. It was really good therapy for everybody who was there.”
Shortly after that operation, Slabinski returned to the SEAL Team 6 base at Dam Neck. He was awarded a Navy Cross, the second highest battlefield award for heroism. For several years afterward, the leaders at the command limited Slabinski’s battlefield exposure — assigning him to Green Team as an instructor, for example — hoping the psychological wounds from Roberts Ridge would heal.
By late 2007, Slabinski was deployed to Afghanistan as the senior noncommissioned officer in Blue Squadron. The war was entering its seventh year and had become intractable, with no clear path to victory. Early in the war, the SEALs’ mission was to hunt down al Qaeda’s senior leaders, who had largely vanished into Pakistan, but now Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the leader of JSOC, extended the mission to target the Taliban, who along with al Qaeda were moving back and forth across the Pakistani border with impunity. The SEALs were now going after low-level Taliban financiers and shadow governors.
Blue Squadron was led at that time by Cmdr. Peter Vasely, a Naval Academy graduate who had not gone through the advanced assault training of Green Team that the other members of SEAL Team 6 had endured. He was an outsider, despite having been at the command for many years. Like Vic Hyder, he struggled to command the respect of his men. Slabinski — experienced, charismatic, and by now legendary — bridged the gap.
According to two senior SEAL Team 6 sources, however, the leadership dynamic in Blue Squadron was a failure. By 2007, the command’s leadership was aware that some Blue Squadron operators were using specialized knives to conduct “skinnings.” Using the excuse of collecting DNA, which required a small piece of skin containing hair follicles, operators were taking large strips of skin from dead enemy fighters. The two leading officers at the command, Moore and Szymanski, were informed that small groups in each of the three squadrons were mutilating and desecrating combatants in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
Slabinkski and others in the squadron had fallen under the influence of an obscure war novel, “Devil’s Guard,” published in 1971 by George Robert Elford. The book purported to be a true account of an S.S. officer who with dozens of other soldiers escaped Germany after World War II, joined the French Foreign Legion, and spent years in Vietnam brutalizing the insurgency. The novel, which glorifies Nazi military practices, describes counterinsurgency tactics such as mass slaughter and desecration and other forms of wanton violence as a means of waging psychological warfare against the “savage” Vietnamese.
“These fucking morons read the book ‘The Devil’s Guard’ and believed it,” said one of the former SEAL Team 6 leaders who investigated Slabinski and Blue Squadron. “It’s a work of fiction billed as the Bible, as the truth. In reality, it’s bullshit. But we all see what we want to see.” Slabinski and the Blue Squadron SEALs deployed to Afghanistan were “frustrated, and that book gave them the answers they wanted to see: Terrorize the Taliban and they’d surrender. The truth is that such stuff only galvanizes the enemy.”
One telling illustration of what had gone wrong with Blue Squadron occurred on December 17, 2007, during a raid in Helmand province. Slabinski had told his operators that he wanted “a head on a platter.” Although some of the more seasoned SEALs took the statement metaphorically, at least one operator took Slabinski at his word, interpreting it as an order.
Later that night, after Blue Squadron’s assaulters had successfully carried out the raid, killing three or four armed men and recovering weapons and explosives, Vasely and Slabinski conducted a walk-through of the compound. Vasely, who was wearing night-vision goggles, looked through a window and saw one of his operators, his back turned, squatting over the body of a dead militant. Vasely later told investigators he saw the operator moving his hand back and forth over the militant’s neck in a sawing motion. Alarmed at seeing what he believed was a decapitation, he told Slabinski to go inside and see what the young operator was doing. By the time Slabinski entered the room where the dead militant lay, according to three former SEAL Team 6 leaders, the operator had severed much of the dead man’s neck.
Slabinski did not report the decapitation, however. He told Vasely that the operator had been trying to remove the dead fighter’s chest rack, a small vest that can hold ammunition and clips. Slabinski told Vasely, and later, Navy investigators, that there had been “no foul play.”
After leaving the compound and returning to their base in Kandahar province, Vasely reported to Moore, his superior officer, that he believed he had witnessed a war crime, a mutilation. Vasely told Moore he wanted an investigation into the incident. Moore, sitting in his office in Virginia Beach, pressed Vasely: What had he actually seen? Was there another explanation?
Moore told his deputy, Szymanski, who was in Afghanistan, to sort things out. Ten days later, the internal JSOC investigation was closed. The Naval Criminal Investigative Service then opened an investigation but was forced to rely on photographs and witness statements because active hostilities made the alleged crime scene inaccessible. When investigators approached the operator accused of mutilating the dead fighter, he exercised his right to remain silent and his right to counsel. A few days after the attempted interview, investigators obtained photos purporting to be of the dead fighter. No cuts were visible in the photos, according to a military official who has reviewed the file. Three weeks after the incident, NCIS closed its investigation, concluding that there was no evidence the SEAL had violated the laws of armed conflict. But according to multiple SEAL sources, the incident did in fact occur.
Szymanski, according to these sources, was directed by Moore to make the episode disappear. “Tim took a dive,” said a former noncommissioned SEAL officer, and it was “at Moore’s direction.” Szymanski had known Slabinski for at least 15 years. They had bonded over Roberts’s death.
Although Blue Squadron had avoided criminal charges, their battlefield conduct continued to set off alarms within the command. Some SEAL Team 6 leaders were appalled by how easily Vasely and Szymanski had folded under Moore’s pressure.
Within two weeks of the apparent beheading, Moore deployed to Afghanistan. While he was there, he confronted the Blue Squadron troop and the operator who’d tried to behead the Taliban fighter. A former SEAL Team 6 leader who has knowledge of the episode told me Moore shamed Slabinski and the squadron for their conduct. That was the only punishment. (The Intercept is withholding the name of the operator, who believed he was following an order. He remains on active duty and has not responded to requests for comment.)
One of the former SEAL Team 6 leaders, who investigated several Blue Squadron incidents, including the mutilation of bodies, said he repeatedly asked the operators why they felt the need to commit such acts. “Often we’d hear, well, they’re savages,” the former leader said. “They don’t play by the rules, so why should we?”
The Intercept submitted three pages of questions to both Adm. Szymanksi, who as head of Naval Special Warfare now commands all SEALs in the Navy, and Capt. Vasely, who currently runs the operations divisions of JSOC. Both declined to comment. Moore did not respond to requests for comment. A spokesperson at Naval Special Warfare, which oversees SEAL Team 6, declined repeated requests for interviews and refused to answer a detailed list of questions, writing in a statement, “We do not entertain or support public discussion of classified information because it puts our forces, their families and our future operations at great risk.” The SEAL command asserted that “all members of Naval Special Warfare are required to comply with the Laws of Armed Conflict in the conduct of military operations.”
Top: Capt. Peter Vasely with members of Blue Squadron in Afghanistan. Bottom: Britt Slabinski, left, and Capt. Timothy Szymanski, commanding officer of the Naval Special Warfare Group, after Slabinski was blackballed by SEAL Team 6 in Norfolk, Va., March 25, 2011
IN 2010, WHEN Slabinski was up for a promotion at the command, SEAL Team 6 leaders conducted two internal inquiries before making a decision. Almost immediately, the issue that received the most scrutiny was the December 2007 attempted beheading. According to two former SEALs, Slabinski told his teammates and superiors that his remark about wanting a head was figurative and not a literal order. By then, there was no question about whether the attempted beheading had occurred; the question was why.
“We didn’t debate whether Slab had told his guys he wanted a head on a platter — he copped to that. The only issue was, was his order real, or just talk?” said one of the retired SEALs involved. “It didn’t make a difference. He said it and one of his operators did it because he believed he was following an order.”
Ten officers and master chiefs voted unanimously against allowing Slabinski to return to the command. At that point, the second inquiry was commissioned by the SEAL Team 6 commanding officer, Pete Van Hooser. Evidence was presented that Slabinski gave an order to shoot all the men they encountered during another raid, whether or not they were armed. According to the New York Times, Afghans accused Blue Squadron of killing civilians during that operation, but a subsequent military investigation determined that all those killed had been armed and hostile. When Slabinski was confronted by the command’s senior enlisted leader about whether he had instructed Blue Squadron operators to kill all males during the operation, code-named Pantera, Slabinski acknowledged that he had done so. The second inquiry also uncovered the “head on a platter” remark as the instigation for the beheading in December 2007, but the command’s senior enlisted leader told Slabinski he would not get the promotion or be allowed to serve at the command again because of the Pantera order. Overall, it had become clear that Slabinski’s run as a leader on the battlefield caused Blue Squadron to come “off the rails,” according to a former SEAL Team 6 leader.
Slabinski has not responded to multiple queries and requests for comment, though he did deny to the New York Times in 2015 that he gave the illegal pre-mission guidance to kill all males. In his interview with the Times, Slabinski asserted that it was he who had witnessed the operator slashing at the dead fighter’s throat, saying, “It appeared he was mutilating a body.” Slabinski portrayed himself as trying to police his men and said that he gave them “a very stern speech.” He claimed to the Times that he told his men, “If any of you feel a need to do any retribution, you should call me.” Slabinski says nothing in the Times story about Vasely ordering him to investigate the scene or the remark about a head on a platter.
“To this day, he thinks the guys turned on him,” said one of the former SEAL Team 6 leaders. “Well, they did. What we didn’t do was turn him in. You will step over the line and you start dehumanizing people. You really do. And it takes the team, it takes individuals to pull you back. And part of that was getting rid of Britt Slabinski.”
Two other SEAL Team 6 leaders with a combined 35 years at the command said the removal of Slabinski and the failure to pursue official punishment was an indictment of the senior officers — they had failed one of their most basic duties, to hold themselves and others accountable for wrongdoing.
When Szymanski, who was then commanding officer of all regular East Coast-based SEAL teams, heard that Slabinski had been rejected by Team 6, he requested him as his senior enlisted adviser. The request was approved and Slabinski was promoted.
“If a guy cuts off another guy’s head and nothing happens, that becomes the standard,” said one of the former SEAL Team 6 leaders. “You’re moving the bar and buying into an emotional justification, ‘War is hell.’ If you’re not disciplining your force, you’re saying it’s OK.”
Slabinski retired from the military in 2014 after 25 years in the Navy. The operator accused of the attempted beheading has experienced difficulties as a result of his service. Last year, the command became concerned about his psychological condition, determining that he was medically unfit to deploy again. His superiors believed he had become “unglued” over the 2007 deployment. He was quietly removed from Team 6 and returned to a regular SEAL unit. He has told at least one former SEAL Team 6 teammate that he hopes to never deploy again.
“He’s just beginning to suffer for what he did,” said another SEAL Team 6 leader.
A KIND OF SPORT
ON THE SECOND floor of the SEAL Team 6 headquarters in the Dam Neck naval annex, a computer, known as the “ops computer,” stores the classified data on every mission the unit has completed for the past decade. Here, commanders returning from a deployment leave their hard drives with technicians who transfer PowerPoints, after-actions reports, and photos of each operation a squadron conducted abroad. The database contains photographs of persons killed by SEAL operators during their missions and other mission documentation.
Some of those photographs, especially those taken of casualties from 2005 through 2008, show deceased enemy combatants with their skulls split open by a rifle or pistol round at the upper forehead, exposing their brain matter. The foreign fighters who suffered these V-shaped wounds were either killed in battle and later shot at close range or finished off with a security round while dying. Among members of SEAL Team 6, this practice of desecrating enemy casualties was called “canoeing.”
The canoeing photos are dramatic documentary evidence of the extreme and unnecessary violence that began to occur during multiple high-risk, exhausting, and traumatizing tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. “There is and was no military reason whatsoever to split someone’s skull open with a single round,” said a former SEAL Team 6 leader. “It’s sport.”
The former SEAL Team 6 leader said that he first noticed canoeing in 2004, and that it does occur accidentally on the battlefield, but rarely. He said canoeing became “big” in 2007. “I’d look through the post-op photos and see multiple canoes on one objective, several times a deployment,” the retired SEAL said. When SEAL Team 6 operators were occasionally confronted about the desecration, the SEAL leader said, they’d often joke that they were just “great shots.”
Canoeing was just one of several acts of mutilation frequently carried out by SEALs. Two different sources said that over a six-year period — roughly 2005 through 2011 — battlefield reports and accounts of atrocities, particularly mutilations and taking of trophies, were ignored by SEAL Team 6 leadership. One source said his superiors repeatedly refused to address the issue.
The lack of battlefield discipline was not limited to a single squadron. Unlawful violence, aberrations from rules of engagement, mutilations, and disrespect of enemy casualties, actions that had been isolated at the beginning of the Afghan war, had by this point spread throughout SEAL Team 6.
In the early years of the war, SEAL Team 6 had an inflexible standard: Shooting people who were unarmed was forbidden and anyone who did so had to demonstrate the target had displayed hostile intent. Operators and officers prided themselves on their ability to kill only those who were deemed a threat.
If a SEAL couldn’t justify the threat after a shooting, he was quietly removed from the unit. But even that rule evolved over time. SEALs were given wide berth as long as they could explain why they made the decision to shoot an unarmed person. In 2007, for example, a Gold Squadron sniper was pushed out of the unit after he killed three unarmed people — including a child — in at least two different operations. He was allowed to return to the regular SEAL teams. No investigation into an unjustified killing has ever resulted in formal disciplinary action against a member of SEAL Team 6.
IN 2008, TENSIONS began to rise between SEAL Team 6 and the CIA over operations in Afghanistan. Paramilitary officers from the CIA, including a covert joint unit under the agency’s command called the Omega program, worked closely with the SEALs. These small teams of CIA, Seal Team 6, and Afghan commandos operated under the agency’s Title 50 authority, which governs covert activities. This meant there was less oversight over their missions — and less accountability if things went wrong.
Late that year, the CIA joined operators from Gold Squadron for an operation near Jalalabad. According to a CIA officer with direct knowledge of the incident, the CIA requested that the SEALs capture, rather than kill, their militant targets. During the pre-dawn raid, a small team from Gold Squadron breached a compound that was home to an insurgent cell that had targeted a U.S. base. Inside, they found six militants, four in one room, all sleeping with weapons near their beds. Despite orders to detain the men, the SEALs killed all six. In the room with four of the suspected insurgents, four SEALs counted down and canoed each sleeping man with a shot to the forehead. One of their teammates killed the other two targets in another room. All six were photographed.
The CIA team on the operation was angry because they had lost an opportunity to interrogate the suspected militants. “These were guys who were running a cell near our base,” the CIA officer said. “We could’ve used the intel.” Outside the compound, the SEALs were quick to show the photos to others on the assault team. “They were smiling, almost gleeful,” he said. “Canoeing them was funny.”
Shortly after that operation, a CIA paramilitary officer named Richard Smethers, who was himself a retired SEAL Team 6 officer, complained to his CIA superiors in Kabul that SEALs were committing atrocities. Smethers threatened to expose the SEALs for what he believed was a series of war crimes; the canoeing incident was just one of several operations in which Smethers alleged that Gold Squadron operators violated the laws of war. Over a period of several weeks, a fight erupted between SEAL Team 6 and CIA officers in Afghanistan. The SEALs quickly intervened and made a deal with the CIA station in Kabul. Gold Squadron was set to redeploy to the U.S., and the SEALs promised to rein in their operators. In exchange, Smethers, who never filed an official allegation or complaint, was sent back to the U.S. Smethers did not respond to requests for comment.
According to multiple members of SEAL Team 6, the fight with the CIA was one of the few instances in which the command’s battlefield misconduct was in danger of being exposed. A retired noncommissioned officer who tried to police the unit said the command suffered from “unspoken oaths of allegiance” among both the officers and the operators, and that the first instinct when misconduct surfaced was to “protect the command and then the men” rather than hold bad actors accountable.
“It’s important that you put this stuff in context,” the CIA officer said. “I’m not going to tell you this didn’t happen. Yes, we — they committed war crimes. It happens in war. War is an adrenaline rush. After three or four deployments in, you need more to get that stimulation. We didn’t hit women or kids. We killed bad guys. And afterwards, we added the psychological warfare.”
The CIA declined to comment for this article.
SMETHERS’S THREAT TO expose Team 6 came just as Vice Adm. William McRaven settled in as the new commander of the Joint Special Operations Command. McRaven became the first Navy SEAL to lead JSOC and was already familiar with Dam Neck’s status as the disrespectful sibling in the U.S. special operations family. In the early 1980s, a group of seasoned enlisted SEAL Team 6 operators kicked McRaven off a training exercise, relieving him of his already tenuous command for being too rule-bound. McRaven was subsequently transferred from the unit.
Just eight months after taking over JSOC, after a series of complaints from the Afghan government over special operations night raids and civilian deaths, McRaven sought to pull Team 6 back from its overly aggressive stance. He ordered a pause in most SEAL and JSOC operations over a two-week period in February 2009. Although the stoppage was not limited to the SEALs, his former unit pushed back against a new set of operational guidelines.
First, the SEALs would now be required to do “call outs” before entering a compound. The intention was to permit women and children to get out of harm’s way before operators conducted their assault. The operators were unhappy about the new restriction, arguing that call outs gave up the tactical advantage of surprise. McRaven’s other directive required a more extensive post-operation review to document and justify combatant deaths. Previously, the command had required only a frontal shot and a profile of each dead militant. The new rule required a full photographic accounting of who was killed, photos of the entire body, where the target was when he dropped, what weapons he held, the vantage point of the operator when he fired, and other atmospherics.
This directive had one primary purpose: to protect U.S. forces from accusations of unjustified killings by Afghan government officials. The photos and other review documents could be shared with local officials to justify operations. But the directive had another benefit. With more extensive photographic documentation, SEAL operators had less time to fire unnecessary rounds into the dead, and they had to use the photos to explain why they fired their weapon. As a result, photographs of canoed enemy fighters virtually ceased to appear in after-action reports.
MCRAVEN’S NEW ORDERS set off a struggle between the JSOC commander and SEAL Team 6’s enlisted ranks that played out in a series of high-profile hostage rescues ordered by President Obama. The first and best-known was the rescue of Capt. Richard Phillips, captain of the commercial vessel the “Maersk Alabama,” in April 2009 from Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean. Red Squadron snipers killed three pirates who were holding Phillips in a lifeboat. But McRaven, who commanded the operation, had not ordered the snipers to fire, and neither had a SEAL Team 6 officer. The sniper team leader acted under his own “emergency assault” authority to kill the pirates as soon as all three could be taken out at the same time. McRaven, who was informed of the killings only after he knew Phillips was safe, was incensed.
After the operation, $30,000 in cash, which the pirates had stashed in a lifeboat, went missing. The SEALs were suspected of taking the money. The FBI and NCIS investigated two members of Red Squadron and conducted polygraphs, but the money was never recovered and neither of the SEALs was charged.
Then, in October 2010, SEAL Team 6 set out to rescue a British aid worker named Linda Norgrove, who had been taken captive in Afghanistan. The operation, code-named ANSTRUTHER, an homage to Norgrove’s Scottish heritage, was authorized by British Prime Minister David Cameron. The operation commanded high-level interest because Norgrove, though in Afghanistan as an aid worker for DAI, an American NGO, secretly worked with Britain’s MI-6, according to four U.S. military and intelligence sources. Two of these sources told me that the British government informed SEAL Team 6 mission planners that Norgrove worked for the spy agency, and that they had been tracking her movements since the abduction. Asked for comment, the British government told The Intercept that it does not comment on security matters and would “neither confirm nor deny” that Norgrove worked for the intelligence agency.
During a late-night raid at a northern Kunar compound, Silver Squadron operators killed several captors but accidentally killed Norgrove when an inexperienced SEAL threw a fragment grenade at one of the captors.
The operation’s team leader believed that a suicide vest had been detonated by one of the captors, and two Silver Squadron operators initially withheld the fact that a grenade had been thrown. Consequently, the SEALs initially reported to JSOC senior leaders that Norgrove had been killed by her captors.
Later, a JSOC officer watching drone footage of the operation noticed one of the SEALs throw an object that landed and exploded near where Norgrove’s body was found. One of the two SEALs who knew about the grenade eventually told his team leader, who then failed to inform his commanders until he was confronted the next day.
The operation commanded high-level interest because Norgrove, though in Afghanistan as an aid worker for DAI, an American NGO, secretly worked with Britain’s MI-6.
After a joint British-American investigation into the operation identified the failures and recommended that only the SEAL who threw the grenade be punished, McRaven personally traveled to Dam Neck and determined that all three SEALs involved in the cover-up should be thrown out of SEAL Team 6. The “admiral’s mast” was an unprecedented disciplinary action at the command, which had always been allowed to discipline itself. Normally, SEAL Team 6’s commanding officer, a captain, would conduct a captain’s mast, a form of non-judicial punishment. According to a senior JSOC official, the Norgrove operation was an “I told you so moment.” Even so, two of the three SEALs later returned to the unit.
In the world of SEAL Team 6, where operators never face criminal charges — despite allegations of war crimes, unjustified killings, and corruption — the admiral’s mast was a serious rebuke. One former SEAL leader who attended the proceeding told me McRaven’s message to the command’s leadership was clear. “What you’re saying is you have no faith in the commander,” he said. “All of us were upset.” The former SEAL Team 6 leader told me that for the unit’s operators, the greatest punishment was being kicked out of the unit in front of their peers.
McRaven, who did not respond to requests for comment, also held a meeting with a large group of senior officers under his command and said that SEAL Team 6 had effectively made lying to protect a teammate an honorable course of action, according to a person who attended the meeting. “He told us they had put unit and self before mission and country,” the retired officer said. “He reminded us all that our first loyalty was to the Constitution.”
Tactically, however, the command was winning on the battlefield, and despite McRaven’s directives, there was no serious internal scrutiny of the SEALs’ most excessive conduct.
“Several of us confronted the officers,” said one former noncommissioned officer who tried to stop the criminal behavior. “We knew what needed to be done to police the kids.” The former senior enlisted leader said he pressed several commanding officers to address what he believed were war crimes. “We failed to fix the problem,” he said. “It wasn’t complex, and had it been several one-off events, a guy chopping a head off — it wouldn’t be such a failure. But this started in 2002 and continued through the wars. Our leadership punted and I’m not sure it will ever be corrected.”
The failure of SEAL Team 6 to hold itself accountable for battlefield atrocities has resulted in lasting consequences for operators at the command. “No one prepared our guys for the collateral damage and the second- and third-order effects of this war,” the former SEAL leader said. “Night after night of kill or be killed. [There was] so much savagery. I’m not condoning the behavior — there’s no justification to hacking a body — but we didn’t prepare them either. If I told you I cut off a head after an operation, explaining that I got caught up in the moment, went over the line one time — you’d have sympathy for me. War is awful and it’s human to go too far, but this isn’t one time. This is multiple times on each deployment.”
THE PRESIDENT’S OWN
ALTHOUGH CANOEING AS a ritualized form of enemy mutilation ceased to be a widespread practice after McRaven’s clamp-down on the SEALs’ atrocities, it did not entirely cease. And though the gruesome and illegal practice has never been previously reported, at least one canoeing incident is quite well known, if hidden in plain sight.
By the time Robert O’Neill entered Osama bin Laden’s bedroom in the Abbottabad compound on May 2, 2011, the al Qaeda leader was bleeding out on the floor, possibly already dead, after being shot in the chest and leg by the lead assaulter on the raid. That operator, known as Red inside the unit, is still an active-duty member of SEAL Team 6 and has never been publicly identified. O’Neill entered the room, walked over to where bin Laden lay on the floor, and shot him twice in the face. He then stood above the now indisputably dead man and canoed him, firing a round into his forehead and splitting open the top of his skull, exposing his brain. Osama bin Laden had been branded by SEAL Team 6.
O’Neill has not been shy about the fact that he canoed bin Laden. “His forehead was gruesome,” he later told Esquire magazine. “It was split open in the shape of a V. I could see his brains spilling out over his face.” He has even alluded to the grisly practice on Twitter. What he has not done is name the practice or reveal that by canoeing bin Laden he had secured the ultimate war trophy, the culmination of a decade’s worth of bloody “sport” by elements of SEAL Team 6 who considered themselves craftsmen of killing.
The story of the bin Laden raid has been told and retold, but crucial details have never been made public. And from the moment President Obama announced the operation’s successful conclusion in a televised address, a variety of individuals and institutions have sought to profit from the elimination of America’s most hated enemy.
Two different SEALs, Robert O’Neill and Matthew Bissonnette, have publicly taken credit for killing bin Laden. According to multiple sources, both of their accounts contain multiple self-serving falsehoods. The texture of those accounts reveals much about what went wrong with the most celebrated special operations command in the U.S. military. The falsehoods, both significant and slight, demonstrate that even when conducting the most important missions, SEAL Team 6 was unable to rise above the culture of deceit, personal enrichment, and self-aggrandizement that has corrupted a fighting unit legendary for its discipline and code of honor.
“The beauty of what they have constructed,” said a former teammate about how Bissonnette and O’Neill cornered the market on the bin Laden raid, “is that there is only one guy, essentially, who can come forward and say they’re lying — and he won’t ever talk.”
O’NEILL’S AND BISSONNETTE’S careers mirrored one another. They each entered Red Squadron at the same time, and were both recipients of the Winkler hatchets handed out by Wyman Howard. They were both talented and competitive, and they were determined to profit from their experiences as SEALs.
Bissonnette was viewed by Howard as the prototypical SEAL Team 6 operator: a college-educated enlisted man with a savvy understanding of tactics and technology. O’Neill, by contrast, was not considered as clever as his teammate, but he was a deadly sniper and had a successful tour as a team leader in Red Squadron.
Both men were notorious among their teammates for their self-promotional tendencies — a trait not well-suited for a “team-first” environment. In the end, their inclusion in the bin Laden raid and their roles defined where they fit in: Bissonnette worked closely with the CIA and SEAL Team 6 superiors during the planning phase to help plot out the assault, and would lead a team of operators to find and kill bin Laden’s courier. O’Neill was chosen as a team leader for a group providing external security but ultimately traded that leadership role for a junior spot on the team he and Bissonnette believed would get the first shot at bin Laden.
The 23 SEAL Team 6 operators assigned to the mission prepared constantly for the entire month of April 2011, practicing on two different full-scale mock-ups of the bin Laden compound. Tactically, there was little about the upcoming raid that was complex. Unlike the hundreds of other assaults SEAL Team 6 had carried out in Iraq and Afghanistan, in which the operators would plan and carry out a raid within a matter of hours, this time they had weeks to prepare. They had detailed plans of the Abbottabad compound provided by the CIA and knew where they could expect to find bin Laden. The SEALs’ biggest concern was how much time they would have, which was dictated by the amount of fuel the two Black Hawks could carry for the round trip.
The planning was so meticulous, one retired SEAL Team 6 leader told me, that a helicopter pilot warned mission planners that one of the two stealth Black Hawks they were to use would likely experience a “vortex ring state,” which means air disturbed by the rotors would prevent the helicopter from getting the lift necessary to continue hovering. The pilot noted that the two mock-up compounds had chain link fences around the buildings, allowing the air to disperse, while the real compound had thick concrete walls.
Less than a week before the assault, Bissonnette and O’Neill got into a shouting match at the Dam Neck base over who would sell the inside story of the raid. Several of their teammates on the mission had to intervene, according to a former SEAL Team 6 operator. A former SEAL Team 6 leader told me that O’Neill and Bissonnette originally agreed to cooperate on a book or movie project after the raid was over, but later had a falling out. The former SEAL leader said the extensive amount of training for the mission, combined with Bissonnette’s planning role, gave both men ample opportunity to find ways to put themselves on the third floor, in a good position to kill bin Laden.
Despite claims by John O. Brennan, President Obama’s chief counterterrorism adviser, that the raid was a capture or kill operation, the SEALs were told explicitly to kill bin Laden. There was no plan for capture, and no contingency for a surrender. “They were told, ‘Go in, kill him, and bring the body back,’” said a former SEAL Team 6 leader involved in the raid.
In this May 5, 2011 file photo, local residents and media are seen outside the house where al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden was caught and killed in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Local residents say Pakistan has started to demolish the compound in the northwest city of Abbottabad where Osama bin Laden lived for years and was killed by U.S. commandos. Two residents say the government brought in three mechanized backhoes Saturday, Feb. 25, 2012, and began destroying the tall outer walls of the compound after sunset. They set up floodlights to carry out the work.
ON MAY 1, two stealth Black Hawk helicopters took off from Jalalabad, Afghanistan, and headed east toward Abbottabad. The flight took 90 minutes, and as the Black Hawk Bissonnette rode in approached the compound walls, it effectively slammed on the brakes. The pilot who had warned that one of the helicopters would stall was right. Bissonnette’s helicopter crashed into bin Laden’s side yard. Bissonnette and his teammates were nearly killed, and many of the operators aboard ended up with chronic injuries.
Bissonnette and a small team of SEALs moved from the helicopter to a small building adjacent to bin Laden’s main house. After the SEALs tried blowing the building’s gated front door, someone inside fired several rounds out a window. They were the only shots not fired by the SEALs during the raid. One of Bissonnette’s teammates then put his gun through the front door, which was now slightly ajar, and shot the gunman in the head. He was Ahmed al Kuwaiti, one of bin Laden’s couriers.
Afterward, Kuwaiti’s wife confirmed that bin Laden could be found on the third floor of the main building, just as the team had been briefed. Bissonnette and his team then moved to the main house.
Once inside, the SEALs proceeded slowly and methodically. O’Neill’s teammates shot and killed Kuwaiti’s brother and his wife on the first floor. After blowing open the iron gate blocking the main stairway, the lead assaulters, among them Bissonnette and O’Neill, followed the operator known as Red up the stairs. Red encountered and shot bin Laden’s son just before the second floor landing, and the SEALs following behind him fanned out into the hallways and rooms on the second floor to search and secure the area. It was then that both Bissonnette and O’Neill hung back on the stairway. Both should have remained on the second floor. Instead, as Red began his ascent to the third floor, they followed him up, hoping to get in on the kill. O’Neill was closer to Red, one of the first five assaulters. Bissonnette was much farther back down the stairwell.
As he approached the third floor bedroom, Red saw bin Laden standing in the doorway, peering out. He was unarmed and wearing pajamas. A few of his female relatives were nearby. Red came to a stop and fired two shots with his suppressed rifle. One shot hit bin Laden in the chest and the second shot glanced off his hip or thigh as Bin Laden stumbled backward into his room and fell toward the foot of his bed.
Red could see bin Laden bleeding out from his chest wound but he still had not entered the bedroom.
Red watched bin Laden fall. He later told his teammates that it was possible one arm was twitching reflexively as he died, but otherwise he was effectively dead and not a threat. The distinction was crucial. As the lead assaulter, it was Red’s job to make the most important tactical judgments because he largely blocked the view of the SEALs behind him. According to several former members of SEAL Team 6, the most basic principle of assault training is “follow your shot,” meaning that an operator who has fired on a target must ensure the target no longer poses a threat. Your teammates beside and behind you will cover all the other possible angles and areas of a room as you move forward.
Red could see bin Laden bleeding out from his chest wound but he still had not entered the bedroom. Then, as two of bin Laden’s eldest daughters began to scream, Red quickly corralled them at the doorway, a move considered heroic by other SEALs on the mission. Had the daughters been wearing explosives, Red would have died while shielding his teammates from much of the blast. Instead, he held them back long enough for his teammates, including O’Neill, to enter the bedroom.
O’Neill and two or three more assaulters moved past Red into the bedroom as bin Laden lay on the ground. O’Neill then fired two rounds. According to his own description, the first two rounds hit bin Laden’s forehead. Then O’Neill canoed bin Laden with a final shot.
Conflicting accounts have emerged about how many other SEALs fired rounds into bin Laden’s lifeless body, though one former SEAL Team 6 leader who viewed the body in Jalalabad told me the body appeared to be intact aside from the chest wound and obliterated face.
The SEALs had been specifically asked to avoid shooting bin Laden in the face. O’Neill’s decision to canoe the al Qaeda leader made him unrecognizable. A SEAL who spoke Arabic interviewed bin Laden’s wives and daughters until he was able to get two positive identifications. O’Neill later implied in the Esquire profile that he shot bin Laden because he wasn’t sure Red’s shots had hit the target. He also claimed that bin Laden had been standing when he fired and that a weapon was visible nearby. Yet immediately after the mission, O’Neill described shooting bin Laden while he was on the floor. The two weapons found on the third floor were not discovered until the rooms were searched. Neither was loaded.
O’Neill’s canoeing of bin Laden cost his teammates precious time, but his final shot to bin Laden’s head was unremarkable to them. They ransacked the compound for documents and media for intelligence, left the survivors inside, and returned to Jalalabad air base with the body.
THE RED SQUADRON assaulters later gathered in a private area of Bagram Air Base and debriefed the mission in front of a military lawyer. The squadron’s commanding officer recorded it on a cellphone. Bissonnette claimed he shot and killed al Kuwaiti and had fired bullets into bin Laden on the third floor. According to three sources familiar with the debrief, Bissonnette never fired his weapon at Kuwaiti. At least two of Bissonnette’s teammates who were with him when al Kuwaiti was killed were angry about the deception — taking credit for a teammate’s actions on a mission was unprecedented and dishonorable — but did not contradict him in the presence of a military lawyer. Several of Bissonnette’s teammates later informed their superiors that he had lied about his actions.
During the debrief, Red was identified as having hit bin Laden with a fatal shot, and O’Neill was credited with putting security rounds into him after bin Laden had already gone down. There was no discussion of a visible weapon, no claims that one of bin Laden’s wives had been used as a shield or a threat. The raid, several of the SEALs said afterward, was one of the easiest missions they’d ever conducted. There were no heroics, and, apart from al Kuwaiti’s shots, no firefight.
The SEALs in the unit were furious that the White House revealed to the world that Navy SEALs had carried out the raid, violating the traditional code of silence about their missions.
Some of the assaulters on the mission were also angry with Bissonnette and O’Neill because they neglected their responsibilities after bin Laden’s son was shot. Instead of helping search and secure the second floor, both headed to the third floor, hoping to get a chance for the historic kill. Both operators were accused of breaking with standard operating procedure to get themselves in position to be among the first to see or kill bin Laden. Morale at Red Squadron fell apart shortly after the team returned to Virginia Beach from Afghanistan. The SEALs in the unit were furious that the White House revealed to the world that Navy SEALs had carried out the raid, violating the traditional code of silence about their missions. Within hours, news trucks and reporters fanned out through the seaside town looking for anything affiliated with Navy SEALs.
O’Neill was soon removed from his role as a team leader in Red Squadron after he was observed publicly bragging in Virginia Beach bars that he was the man who shot bin Laden. Bissonnette left Red Squadron soon after the raid and retired from the Navy almost one year later. He had already set himself up for a profitable future. While on active duty, he’d formed a consulting company with four other SEALs and secured a contract with one of the command’s biggest equipment suppliers.
Bissonnette’s bestselling book, “No Easy Day,” was published in September 2012, four months after he retired and less than two weeks after O’Neill got out of the Navy. The publication came as a surprise to the Pentagon because Bissonnette had failed to clear it as required.
In the book, Bissonnette implies that he was directly behind Red just below the third floor when bin Laden was shot, and was one of the next two SEALs who entered bin Laden’s bedroom. His account credits Red with the shot that felled bin Laden and holds that he and a third SEAL — presumably O’Neill — fired several rounds into bin Laden as he was lying on the floor.
After the raid, the White House struggled to describe the exact circumstances of bin Laden’s death. First, bin Laden was armed, involved in a firefight, and using one of his wives as a human shield. Then officials took all three of those details back, though they maintained the al Qaeda leader posed a threat. Bissonnette’s book was the first eyewitness account, and it contradicted the Obama administration’s narrative.
After the publication of “No Easy Day” — which in one chapter describes in great detail the specialized gear, along with brand names, Bissonnette wore on the bin Laden mission — the Navy opened several inquiries into Bissonnette’s outside business contracts. They soon discovered he had violated a series of Navy regulations. A joint NCIS-FBI investigation into whether he disclosed classified material in the book lasted two years. During the investigation, Bissonnette surrendered a photo of bin Laden’s dead body that he had unlawfully retained.
Bissonnette eventually settled his legal case with the government, agreeing to return $6.7 million in profits from the sale of “No Easy Day” and giving up any proceeds from future sales of the book.
Other active-duty SEAL Team 6 operators who worked with Bissonnette on his various consulting deals were punished as a result of their profiteering. The unit conducted a captain’s mast on at least seven SEALs for revealing sensitive information during a series of promotional videos for the video game “Medal of Honor: Warfighter.” The reprimand ended the careers of two veteran SEAL Team 6 noncommissioned officers.
Although Bissonnette was able to sell a book and tell his story first, O’Neill arguably got the better deal. In March 2013, Esquire’s profile of O’Neill portrayed him as a humble “quiet professional” who after 16 years in the Navy would no longer have health insurance and was otherwise a downtrodden American hero. The account did not dwell on the fact that O’Neill had chosen to separate from the Navy nearly four years before he was eligible for extensive retirement benefits.
In O’Neill’s account, he did not see Red fire his shots at bin Laden because he was looking back down the stairs for reinforcements. When he finally entered the bedroom, alone, bin Laden was standing uninjured, a weapon nearby, his wife in front of him like a human shield. Only inches from his target, O’Neill claims, he shot bin Laden twice in the forehead. Bin Laden dropped and O’Neill fired the security round that canoed him.
Some of O’Neill’s teammates were outraged he’d been so brazenly inaccurate and self-serving in his account. For many on the raid, including those who had been present in bin Laden’s bedroom with O’Neill, it was the first time they’d heard anyone in the command say the terrorist leader was standing, posing a threat of any kind.
In 2014, O’Neill unveiled himself as the man who killed bin Laden in an hourlong Fox News special, just as Bissonnette published a second book. The former teammates both hit the press circuit, each telling reporters off the record that the other was a liar. Already a popular motivational speaker, O’Neill now charges up to $35,000 per speech. Today, he is a paid on-air commentator for Fox News and is reportedly eyeing a run for the Senate in his native Montana. He even has his own line of clothing.
Both Bissonnette and O’Neill declined to answer questions for this article.
The truth about what happened in bin Laden’s bedroom may never be fully known. One former SEAL Team 6 leader who was involved in the raid told me he was never too concerned about the discrepancies between O’Neill’s and Bissonnette’s claims. A veteran of hundreds of raids and assaults during his career, the former SEAL said he disagreed with the order to kill bin Laden, regardless of whether he was armed, and compared it to Britt Slabinski’s order to his Blue Squadron men in 2007. “I didn’t give their different accounts much thought,” the SEAL said. “They shot an unarmed dude. It was disappointing. I’d almost wish they’d beaten him to death. That seems more fair.” And here were two guys who set out to make money off a mission that required 23 SEALs to pull off: “It’s dishonorable.”
Bissonnette and O’Neill are no longer welcome at SEAL Team 6 headquarters. The command’s top noncommissioned officer placed their names on the SEAL Team 6 rock of shame, the unofficial list of unit pariahs. The list also includes Britt Slabinski, who was blacklisted in 2015 following the New York Times article that quoted him denying he’d ever ordered his men to kill unarmed Afghan targets. “That’s what’s wrong with my community,” the former SEAL Team 6 leader told me. “Our sense of what’s right and what’s wrong is warped. No one was upset that he ordered a beheading or all the men shot even if they were unarmed. They were mad because he spoke to the New York Times and lied.”
SEVERAL MONTHS AFTER the bin Laden raid, in October 2011, SEAL Team 6 held its annual “stump muster,” a reunion of current command members and their families, as well as past leaders and senior operators. That year’s reunion, the first under Wyman Howard as commanding officer, was held at their new headquarters, a $100 million, state of the art testament to the stature of the command as the home of the “President’s Own,” the clandestine global force capable of striking anywhere, killing anyone, the tip of America’s military spear. Outside the main entrance stands a 30-foot trident sculpted out of a fragment of the World Trade Center.
At the reunion, a few hundred yards from the Atlantic Ocean, a small group of current and former master chiefs stood around drinking and telling war stories. One retired senior SEAL Team 6 leader was there who led the unit during the early years of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Over the years, he had worried about battlefield discipline and retaliation after Neil Roberts had been nearly beheaded, and he had feared his men would seek retribution in Iraq during the height of the violence there. He’d left the SEALs before the worst of the atrocities had taken place, though his former teammates would occasionally call him to report what was happening on deployments. He’d been told that Blue Squadron had collected ears and that mutilations had become common. He wasn’t surprised. After more than 30 years in special operations, he knew that elite forces would inevitably cross ethical, moral, and legal boundaries if they were given too long a leash. When he first arrived at Dam Neck, operators in the unit who had served in Vietnam warned him that war crimes and battlefield atrocities hung like a cloud over the entire unit — even if only one SEAL had participated.
Sitting with old friends, the retired SEAL was handed a ring-bound portfolio. Opening it up, he saw a collection of photographs, more than a dozen canoed enemy heads. He was told that the photographs were part of SEAL Team 6’s “greatest hits” of terrorists killed since 9/11. They were not the private collection of some individual operator, but the command’s official after-action pictures. The old sailor put the portfolio down. After a short while, he quietly left the base. He hasn’t returned since.